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Health Service

China - Health Service

The health care system in China is well-established and readily available in both major cities and rural towns. However, getting decent medical care as an expat can be a difficult due to the potential language barrier and high costs. Here is a comprehensive guide on how to select the best health services in China as a migrant.

For expats who will be living in China for more than five years, it is advisable to get adequate health cover for yourself and family. As you will notice, healthcare in China is quite expensive, especially for migrants. Finding quality healthcare also depends on where you choose to be treated. In China, hospitals are either private or public-owned.

Private Hospitals

Most private hospitals in China are foreign-owned. These are large hospitals located in established cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Expats may prefer private hospitals because of the guarantee of receiving higher quality medical care. Private hospitals often employ highly qualified medical staff, and are equipped with state of the art equipment.

Expats may be able to afford appointments in private hospitals. These hospitals also have medical specialists able to handle a wide range of healthcare problems, from simple checkups to complex physiotherapy sessions. The only disadvantage of private foreign hospitals is the expensive fees they charge. Expect to pay almost 10 times the amount charged by public local hospitals.

Migrants need to have proper medical cover to receive quality treatment from private hospitals. This will help to cushion hefty bills and not force you to dig deeper into your pocket. Bear in mind that private hospitals in China do accept insurance policies from outside the country.

Public Hospitals

Public hospitals charge fairly for medical care when compared to other international hospitals. In addition, expats will pay the same low prices as locals. However, public hospitals lack the high quality medical facilities offered by private hospitals. Such hospitals are unreliable when seeking advanced medical care such as complex surgical procedures. If you have a complex health problem and go to a public hospital, you may be referred to an advanced private hospital. There is also the option of flying abroad for further treatment, which can be expensive.

It is impossible to schedule doctor appointments in public hospitals. Everyone waits in line to see a doctor or to be treated. Queues in public hospitals are often long, as few doctors and nurses are available to serve the influx of patients. Medical staff are often overworked, and in some cases may lack the knowledge to handle complex medical procedures.

Unlike in a private hospital where a bill is presented at the end of your care, in a public hospital you will pay for every individual treatment you receive. There are public hospitals that will ask for an initial deposit to cover the expected cost of treatment. Any other arrears that add to the bill will be presented to the patient on check out.

Public hospitals in China will not accept any insurance from overseas. However, hospitals in the cities will accept credit card payments. You can then ask your health insurance company to reimburse you the money spent in treatment as outlined on your cover.

VIP Wards

VIP wards can be found in public hospitals. These private wings provide special treatment to patients, but will charge higher fees. Nevertheless, VIP wards are a cheaper alternative than private hospitals. You get the same professional medical treatment and enjoy the same facilities found in private hospitals, but at a lower rate. Doctors and nurses on VIP wards will also speak fluent English. Some public VIP wards even offer special medical packages tailored for migrants.

City Level Hospitals

You have a better chance of getting quality treatment from a public hospital in the city than one in the rural towns. City public hospitals are more advanced and will have more highly qualified medical staff. They also have better emergency response facilities such as ambulances. Rural public hospitals are ill-staffed and will only handle basic medical procedures.

District Level Hospitals

District hospitals have the same medical standards as the large public hospitals. In addition, these hospitals have the advantage of shorter waiting time. A simple checkup or basic treatment should be completed in under 20 minutes. The same kind of treatment can take hours in a large public hospital.

Rural Clinics

Rural clinics are quite unreliable when it comes to receiving proper medical care. Not only are they understaffed, the existing medical personnel may be under-qualified. These clinics are also poorly equipped, which is why most of them are reluctant to admit expats with emergency cases.

Pharmacies And Medical Prescriptions

There are plenty of pharmacies in the major cities of China. You can locate these by the trademark green cross sign outside. It is possible to buy medication from pharmacies without a prescription. However, the pharmacy will ask you to sign a written consent that will not hold them liable should the drugs harm you in any way.

Prescriptions are provided by a trained doctor from established hospitals. A big benefit of a prescription is that the correct drugs will be written in Mandarin for you, making it easier for the pharmacy staff to serve you. The alternative is to visit the drug store directly and deal with a non-English speaking attendant.

Have a Chinese friend or colleague write the exact medication you need in Mandarin. You can also carry a photo or the drug packaging to help with the description you give to the pharmacy attendant. Most labels on Chinese medication are in English, but the prescription itself is often in Mandarin.

Privately-owned pharmacies are cheaper than public or private hospitals. However, an advantage of pharmacies in private hospitals is that they stock the exact drugs you find in Western hospitals.

Health Insurance

Medical care is expensive in China, especially for an expat. It is important that you get adequate insurance cover for yourself and family. Most Chinese employers and multinational companies only provide basic healthcare cover. In such cases, getting a private health policy is advisable.

Always read the fine print of your insurance cover before signing up for the policy. Understand how much your health policy will cover in terms of medical expenses and what you will be expected to top up as deductibles.

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Expat Health Insurance Partners

Bupa Global

At Bupa we have been helping individuals and families live longer, healthier, happier lives for over 60 years. We are trusted by expats in 190 different countries and have links with healthcare organisations throughout the world. So whether you're moving abroad for a change of career or a change of scene, with our international private health insurance you will always be in safe hands.


Cigna has worked in international health insurance for more than 30 years. Today, Cigna has over 71 million customer relationships around the world. Looking after them is an international workforce of 31,000 people, plus a network of over 1 million hospitals, physicians, clinics and health and wellness specialists worldwide, meaning you have easy access to treatment.